AGER LISTENERS CROWDED INTO THE small, recently completed Adventist Meeting House in Battle Creek, Michigan.1
Others sat outside in carriages pulled up close to the open windows of the small church.2
No one wanted to miss a word. Many in attendance had come from out of town. Given that the entire village population was fewer than 4,000,3
obviously something important was happening that weekend to draw such a large group to Battle Creek.4
Just how historic an event it would turn out to be none of them fully realized on that long-ago Sunday, May 23, 1858.
A Glimpse of Light
Several weeks earlier, the Battle Creek church had voted to invite Sabbathkeepers to a General Conference5 to be held Friday through Monday, May 21-24. As announced, the meetings opened at 2:00 p.m. on Friday, with preaching conducted that afternoon, evening, and all day Sabbath. Starting at 8:00 on Sunday morning—for what must have seemed like a very short four hours—Ellen White graphically related to the attentive audience the most significant vision God ever gave her during her 70 years of ministry as His messenger. Soon afterward the editor of The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald (today known as the Adventist Review) vividly described the amazed reactions of those present that day:
“During the forenoon, sister White related a portion of the views she has had concerning the fall of Satan, the plan of salvation, and the great controversy between Christ and his angels and Satan and his. It abounded in startling facts and vivid descriptions. And when the course of the narration brought us down to the days of the first advent, the humiliation, the suffering, and finally the crucifixion of the Saviour, especially then did not only the silent tear, but even the audible sobs of many in the congregation announce that their hearts were touched by the sufferings of the Son of God for rebellious man.”6 This was the first—and apparently the longest—public oral recitation of what today we call the great controversy vision.
Fifty years later, one who was present that day still vividly recalled Ellen White’s presentation: “As she spoke, the mighty power of God filled all the room where we were sitting. . . . Some expressed afterward the sensation we felt, ‘it seemed as though heaven and earth were coming together.’ Those present . . . could never forget the evident power of God accompanying her relation of the facts connected with the great controversy between Christ and Satan in heaven, and the continued conflict of the ages on earth, with the final triumph of right, and the defeat of Satan.”7
A non-Adventist neighbor, walking to his own church that Sunday morning, stopped to investigate what was going on at the Adventist Meeting House. Becoming so engrossed by what he heard, he seemingly forgot all about attending his own church service. When later that day the meeting resumed, the man was again present to hear the rest of the vision.8
Apparently, others also were originally scheduled to speak that morning, but everyone became so engrossed by what Ellen White was describing that she was allowed to continue. By noontime, Mrs. White had reached only the crucifixion of Christ in her telling of what she had seen. When told that it was noon, she responded, “I have only just got fairly started in relating what opens up before me.”9 After lunch, 13 people were baptized in the nearby river, plus two other presentations followed (the names of both speakers are reported in the Review, though nothing regarding what they talked about is given). Finally, Mrs. White resumed where she had left off in the morning in narrating the great controversy story. Presumably, the intervening hours had given her time to rest her voice because that evening she continued until nearly 10:00 describing what she had been shown. So many people then wanted to respond that only after five ineffectual attempts was her husband, James White, finally able to close the meeting. He told the congregation that if they would allow him to make a few remarks, he would then let everyone who still wanted to respond to do so. The Review reports: “He did so by requesting all those determined to press onward to Mt. Zion, to manifest it by rising. The whole congregation were on their feet with a bound.” The unforgettable meeting finally closed about 11:00 p.m.10
The background for that extraordinary meeting was the vision God gave Ellen White on Sunday afternoon, March 14, 1858, in Lovett’s Grove, Ohio. She and James had met with several scattered groups of Sabbathkeeping Adventists throughout the state. In fact, for two weeks a Brother and Sister Tillotson drove their horse-drawn carriage to take the Whites to where the various small groups of Sabbathkeepers held their meetings in Green Springs, Gilboa, and Lovett’s Grove.11 On Sabbath, March 13, as well as Sunday morning, meetings were held in a schoolhouse12 just north of Bowling Green, Ohio. Besides the estimated 40 individuals who had accepted the Sabbath in Lovett’s Grove, others also were in attendance both days.13
Sunday afternoon found James and Ellen White back at the same schoolhouse where Elder White conducted the funeral for a young man who had died. Upon completion of the service, Mrs. White stood to offer a few words of encouragement to the mourners. As she talked about the resurrection at Christ’s coming and the cheering hope of the Christian, she would later recall: “My soul triumphed in God. I drank in rich draughts of salvation. Heaven, sweet heaven, was the magnet to draw my soul upward, and I was wrapt in a vision of God’s glory.”14 During the two-hour vision,15 God revealed a number of things to Ellen White, including what we now call the great controversy. Although much of what she was shown had been revealed to her 10 years earlier, she was now instructed to write it out.16 As the mourners bore the body of the deceased to the graveyard, Ellen White said of those still at the schoolhouse, “Great solemnity rested upon those who remained.”17 Was the solemnity caused by having seen Mrs. White in vision for two hours, or because she also told something about what she had just been shown? Unfortunately, one can only speculate, since she does not say. Her son, who was not with his parents on this trip but doubtless heard the story from them, would later write, “The large congregation, which had more than filled the schoolhouse, returned to their homes, saying, ‘We have seen strange things today.’”18
Broadcasting the Message
The following day, Monday, the Tillotsons drove James and Ellen White to Fremont, Ohio. On Tuesday the Whites took the train to Jackson, Michigan, about 47 miles east of Battle Creek, and the Tillotsons returned to their home in Green Springs, Ohio.19 As the Whites traveled on the train, Mrs. White apparently described to her husband what she had been shown two days before. Believing the vision important enough to distribute widely, they made plans for her to write out the great controversy portion of it immediately upon their return home to Battle Creek, and for James then to publish it.20
Arriving in Jackson, the Whites made their way directly from the train station to the home of Dan and Abigail Palmer, the first two Sabbathkeeping Adventists in Michigan. Ellen White was as well as usual. Shortly after arriving at the Palmers’ home, however, Ellen suffered a stroke of paralysis. Her tongue seemed large and numb, and wouldn’t utter what she wanted to say. She later wrote, “A strange, cold sensation struck my heart, passed over my head, and down my right side. For a time I was insensible; but was aroused by the voice of earnest prayer. I tried to use my left arm and limb, but they were perfectly useless.”21
Ellen was only 30 years old, but since this was the third shock of paralysis she had experienced, for a short time she thought she would die. Fewer than 50 miles from home, she did not expect ever to see her three boys again.22
Earnest prayers ascended heavenward on Ellen White’s behalf. Soon she felt a prickling sensation in her arm and leg, and before long she could use them a little. Those praying for her felt that the power of Satan had been broken. Still, she suffered intensely that night. But by the next day, Wednesday, she had strengthened sufficiently to return home. Still, full recovery would come only slowly. She later recalled, “For several weeks I could not feel the pressure of the hand, nor the coldest water poured upon my head. In rising to walk, I often staggered, and sometimes fell to the floor.”23 Upon returning home to Battle Creek, Ellen was put to bed apparently in the ground floor “parlor-bedroom,” located in the northwest corner of the Wood Street home James had built.24
It was in that single-window room, measuring just 10 by 12 feet, while still suffering the aftermath of the shock of paralysis that Mrs. White began writing what would come to be known as the first edition of The Great Controversy. Describing the physical handicap under which she worked, she later recalled, “I could write at first but one page a day, then rest three; but as I progressed, my strength increased. The numbness in my head did not seem to becloud my mind, and before I closed that work, the effect of the shock had entirely left me.”25
During the historic General Conference meeting held in May in Battle Creek, while praying for the healing of a Sister Hutchins, Ellen White was given a subsequent vision. Describing what happened, Mrs. White wrote: “While praying for her the power of God rested upon us all, and as it came upon me, I was taken off in vision. In that vision I was shown that in the sudden attack at Jackson, Satan designed to take my life to hinder the work I was about to write.”26
The following September, the 219-page first edition of The Great Controversy, neatly bound in muslin, was offered for sale for 50 cents.27 On its cover was printed “Spiritual Gifts, Vol. I.” Throughout the remainder of her life, Mrs. White continued to expand on that first small book. In 1864, Spiritual Gifts, volumes 3 and 4, were printed, tracing more of the history of the controversy throughout Old Testament times.28 Between 1870 and 1884, Ellen White brought out the four Spirit of Prophecy volumes. The first three volumes each contained approximately 400 pages. They covered in less detail what was later included in Patriarchs and Prophets and The Desire of Ages. The last volume in the set, the 1884 edition of The Great Controversy, contained about 500 pages. Beginning in 1888, Ellen White rewrote in greatly expanded format the five volumes of what came to be called the Conflict of the Ages Series. They appeared in the following order: The Great Controversy (1888); Patriarchs and Prophets (1890); The Desire of Ages (1898); The Acts of the Apostles (1911); and Prophets and Kings (1917).29
A Message for Our World
Today, most Adventists are so familiar with Ellen White’s insights regarding the ongoing cosmic conflict between Christ and Satan that we take them almost for granted. Yet nearly everything that Seventh-day Adventists believe and practice is influenced by our understanding of the great controversy. It has brought profound theological understanding to such truths as the character of God, the origin of sin, and God’s solution to the sin problem, to mention only a few. But also, in practical day-to-day ways, those same insights into the cosmic battle now raging continue to impact the way we think, live, worship, and share our faith.
For starters, our global perspective results directly from our belief that God has people throughout the entire world who need to be invited to join Christ’s side in the great controversy. Our healthful lifestyle fits us with strength to witness to others and endows us with clear minds to understand the truths that need to be shared. Likewise, we attempt to help heal the sick and suffering in the world, not merely to make people well but in order that they also may have minds sufficiently clear to understand the issues involved in the great controversy, and thus be able to respond to Christ when invited to choose sides in the conflict. It was for this reason that Adventist hospitals, sanitariums, and clinics were first established throughout the world. Today’s Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) and Adventist Community Services also result from our understanding that God’s purpose in the great controversy is to right the wrongs brought about by Satan and sin, even as we invite people to be on Christ’s side in the cosmic struggle now raging.
Historically, Adventists have stressed the importance of Adventist Christian education, firmly believing that the work of education and redemption are one. Because we realize the eternal issues involved in the great controversy, we invest heavily in Adventist education. In terms of eternity, nothing is more important to us than the salvation of our children.
The great controversy also impacts lifestyle issues. Knowing that Satan is playing a high-stakes game with eternal consequences as he attempts to gain our loyalty, we choose to guard what we read, watch, and listen to, as well as safeguard how we spend our time and money. Sabbaths are an eagerly awaited weekly appointment allowing us to spend time with the One with whom we have chosen to spend eternity. Even our activities during the sacred hours of the Sabbath are important to us because we want nothing to distract our thoughts during our worship of Him. We return our tithe and freely give our offerings as we joyfully acknowledge God’s ownership of all our possessions and His many undeserved blessings. These, and so many other things that we lovingly choose to do, are influenced by our understanding of the soon-to-end cosmic controversy between Christ and Satan. Although the battle still rages, even now we can choose the side on which we want to belong.
Perhaps you have never read Ellen White’s insightful description of the cosmic controversy that so totally shapes the world in which we live. Or possibly it was long ago when you last read the five volumes of the Conflict of the Ages Series. In either case, you will be blessed and strengthened if you choose to read them now.
When reporting Ellen White’s first public recitation of her great controversy vision, Review editor Uriah Smith rightly observed, “When we view this great controversy as now going forward—its field the world, its subject man[kind]—we see not how any can long hesitate upon which side to enroll himself [or herself].”30 In terms of eternity, that choice still is the most important decision any of us will ever make.
To learn more about Historic Adventist Village in Battle Creek, Michigan, and other historic Adventist sites, go to the Adventist Heritage Ministry Web site: www.adventistheritage.org.
1The 28-by-42-foot wooden Adventist Meeting House had been dedicated on November 6-8, 1857. See The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, October 22, 1857, p. 200; see also, John N. Loughborough, Rise and Progress of the Seventh-day Adventists, General Conference Association of the Seventh-day Adventists, Battle Creek, Michigan, 1892, p. 213. A replica of this building stands in Historic Adventist Village in Battle Creek, Michigan.
2It is reported that this is what happened on Sabbath; see The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, May 27, 1858, p. 12. It is presumed that the same thing happened on Sunday.
3Ross H. Coller, “Battle Creek’s Centennial 1859-1959,” The Battle Creek Enquirer and News, Battle Creek, Michigan, 1959, p. 10. The City of Battle Creek incorporated February 25, 1859; ibid., p. 9.
4An estimated 400 Sabbathkeepers attended the meetings on Sabbath; The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, loc. cit.
5Prior to the formal organization of the General Conference in 1863, General Conferences were meetings to which Sabbathkeepers from everywhere were invited to attend.
6The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, May 27, 1858, p. 13.
7John N. Loughborough, “Sketches of the Past—No. 115,” Pacific Union Recorder, September 28, 1911, p. 1.
10The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, loc. cit.
11Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts, published by James White, Battle Creek, Michigan, 1858, p. 265.
12William C. White, “Sketches and Memories of James and Ellen G. White: XXXI. A View of the Age-Long Conflict,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, February 20, 1936, p. 36.
13The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, March 25, 1858, p. 149.
14Ellen G. White, op. cit., pp. 265, 266.
15William C. White, loc. cit.
16Ellen G. White, op. cit., p. 270. For other things shown to Ellen White during the vision given her at Lovett’s Grove, see pp. 266-270.
17Ibid., p. 271.
18William C. White, loc. cit.
19That the Tillotsons lived in Green Springs, Ohio, is inferred from Ellen G. White, op. cit., p. 265; it is presumed they returned to their home after taking the Whites to the train station in Fremont, Ohio.
20William C. White, loc. cit.
21Ellen G. White, op. cit., p. 271.
22Ibid. (Her three sons were Henry Nichols, born in 1847; James Edson, born in 1849; and William Clarence, born in 1854.)
23Ibid., pp. 271, 272.
24It has long been generally believed that Ellen White wrote the first edition of The Great Controversy in the upstairs bedroom of her and James’s Wood Street home. Apparently that was not the case. William C. White, in “How Ellen White’s Books Were Written: Addresses to Faculty and Students at the 1935 Advanced Bible School, Angwin, California, Part I, June 18, 1935,” p. 2, recalled: “Most of the writing of . . . [Spiritual Gifts, vols. 1-4] was done in Battle Creek in the little cottage on Wood Street. . . . At first Mother wrote in the ‘parlor-bedroom,’ which was the northwest corner of the ground floor, a room about 10 by 12, with one window to the north. Later when additions were made to the house, she did her writing upstairs in the east chamber, which had two windows to the east.” The confusion about location probably arose because Ellen White seems to have written Spiritual Gifts, vols. 3 and 4, in her upstairs bedroom. The room in which Ellen White originally wrote the first edition of The Great Controversy (Spiritual Gifts, vol. 1) was greatly altered at the time the Whites enlarged their home in 1861, so is no longer visible for visitors who now come to see the home. The restored original house itself stands in Historic Adventist Village in Battle Creek, Michigan.
25Ellen G. White, op. cit., p. 272.
27The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, June 24, 1858, p. 48; September 9, 1958, p. 136. (The reference to 224 pages obviously was an error since the book contains only 219 pages. Facsimile copies may be purchased from your Adventist Book Center; Spiritual Gifts, vol. 1, is also the third section of Early Writings.)
28Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2, was Ellen White’s autobiography; the last half of Spiritual Gifts, vol. 4, was a condensed reprint of Ellen White’s earliest testimonies for the church.
29At the time of Ellen White’s death in 1915, all but the last two chapters of Prophets and Kings were completed. Those uncompleted chapters were finished by using materials from her previously published periodical articles, etc.
30The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, op. cit., p. 13.
James R. Nix is director of the White Estate at the General Conference office in Silver Spring, Maryland.